** Umphreys McGee ** 2-28-07
“You can’t choose what happens, only how you react to it,” says Brendan Bayliss, guitarist and vocalist of the musically muscular and spontaneous band of merrymen Umphrey’s McGee. “We had kind of a crazy year and it all came out on this record,” elaborates guitarist and vocalist Jake Cinninger, referring to the band’s third studio offering, Safety In Numbers. “Though it’s not all obviously dark, there’s kind of a theme that runs through it,” he says.
Following their New Year’s Eve 2004 gig, Umphrey’s McGee (its name is taken from a relative of Bayliss’) lost a close ally when their friend and fan, Brian Schultz, was killed by a drunk driver. In addition to the band’s collective loss, Bayliss was living through a personally emotional period of his own. A few weeks later, they were in the studio composing new songs.
“It wasn’t a conscious effort to spill my guts,” says Bayliss, “But life and its circumstances are a balancing act, and it’s all on the record.” The musicians concur that the personal chaos provided plenty of fuel for an explosion of collaborative and creative energy.
“Some people tend to turn inward when they hit hard times. But a bunch of us were going through this tough stuff together, and you can feel that in the recording,” says keyboardist and vocalist Joel Cummins. “That’s where the title comes from.”
Throughout Safety In Numbers, which was produced by the band and their long-time sound engineer Kevin Browning, Umphrey’s McGee rises to the challenge of navigating the fine lines between somber, sincere and high-spirited while oozing characteristic style and finesse. The group of technical sharpies is able to lay down the extreme and complex stuff, but they also know the value in laying back (no doubt attributable to their heavy road work).
“We actually went in with the idea of doing an acoustic and an electric album,” explains Bayliss, though ultimately the 11 tracks were narrowed down to a mixture of both and shaped into a loose concept piece celebrating life in all of its multi-shades of difficulty and dimension and executed in fully-integrated, collaborative style .
“’Believe the Lie’ was one that was done with our Lego-style of song building,” explains Cummins. “We put together three different parts and made them relate to each other and were able to come up with something as a group. Since we wrote it, we’ve been playing it live and we’ve gone back and added a lot of different textures and layers to it. It evolved naturally,” he says.
“Rocker” is a song about the tragic death of their friend Schultz. “Personally it’s an important song to me,” says Bayliss. “And Jake’s got this fantastic guitar melody on top of it. There are strings in the background, and we’ve never used strings before! It’s just very out-of-left-field,” he enthuses.
In addition to the innovative instrumentation, Umphrey’s was joined in the studio by saxophone sensation Joshua Redman and veteran rocker, Huey Lewis.
“We had some really good musical moments and it all happened organically,” says Bayliss. “It’s a big compliment to have someone who is more accomplished than we could hope to be join with what we’re doing,” he says of Redman who contributes his bop-tenor to the syncopated pop song, “Intentions Clear.” “It’s the same with Huey,” says Bayliss. “He says anytime he’s in town, he’s ready to play.”
Lewis adds his bluesy harmonica and vocal stamp to “Women Wine and Song,” perhaps the album’s one track that veers from the overall heavy concept of life’s mysteries.
“’Women, Wine and Song’ had a fun, party atmosphere and we had to be careful where we placed it on a record like this,” says Cinninger, a professional player since the age of 12 (he joined UM in 2000). He also notes the track “Liquid” as his personal highpoint. “It’s one I wrote a while back about memories, and how you lose fear as you grow older.”
Cummins’ tribute to his friend Schultz (“He was like a brother to me,” he says) is the compelling “Words.” “Jake and I got together and worked up different sections, tried to fine-tune the transitions to make it work. It’s an emotional and serious piece of music,” he says. There are also a couple of dazzling acoustic–based pieces like the instrumental “End of the Road,” and the de facto title track, “Passing.”
The album stays with its conceptual feel, right down to its cover art for which famed album designer Storm Thorgerson (aka Hipgnosis, responsible for some of the ‘70s’ most memorable album covers) was commissioned.
“We felt like this album is its own piece of art and we wanted to put out something that not only sounds strong but has a cool artistic vibe to it too,” says Cummins.
“We wanted an album that made some sort of sense,” he says. “It was very important to us, like putting a basketball team on the court, to find a collection of songs that worked well together,” he explains, in light of the rough year.
The basketball analogy is apt for a group of guys who came together in a Midwest college town that’s far more famous for the University of Notre Dame and its sports teams than for its musical legacy.
“South Bend is a family oriented, middleclass town,” explains Cummins. “When we were there, there was no live music club with a PA. We had to learn how to do our own show; once we did that, we could take it anywhere.”
Just a few months after their first gig in 1998, the band released their own CD, the cleverly titled live document, Greatest Hits Volume III. Songs for Older Women and One Fat Sucka followed - as did their first ever DVD, Live from the Lake Coast. Building a reputation with the studio recording and critically favored Local Band Does OK (not to be confused with Local Band Does Oklahoma – a live show released soon after), and honing their groove as a stellar live act, by the time 2004’s Anchor Drops was released to raves, the buzz on Umphrey’s had gotten loud. Rolling Stone tipped them in their hot issue and the Washington Post named the band “rock’s undisputed lord of sonic shape-shifting.” And if you need further convincing, one look at their second DVD - 2005’s Wrapped Around Chicago: New Year’s at the Riv says it all: Umphrey’s has arrived.
With the final line-up completed (including founding member, bassist Ryan Stasik, plus drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag), these days the Umphrey’s operates out of Chicago, where they spend about half the year while the other half is on the road, in the US, Europe and Japan. Nightly audiences are knocked out by their easygoing onstage rapport and the humor with which they juggle everything from gypsy jazz and heavy prog and metal riffs to the most delicate classical runs.
From top to bottom, in its carefully constructed yet deeply felt notes, Safety In Numbers is a strong and decisive, yet easy-flowing representation of Umphrey’s McGee and a tribute to a friend’s life in the face of their loss—a sonic companion to life’s balancing act. For Bayliss and Umphrey’s McGee, Safety In Numbers is more than just an album title, it’s a statement of musical commitment to each other.
“I don’t speak for the band,” he says, “But I feel like this is it. I’d like to stay out there, keep playing and be Uncle Brendan to everyone’s kids one day.”
All content and images © Umphrey's McGee.
Set 2: Glory > Believe the Lie, Ringo, Tribute to the Spinal Shaft > Take It to Church > Regulate > The Crooked One > Sociable Jimmy
Encore: In The Kitchen
 with full-band switch with Perpetual Groove; Speed Queen jam
 with Another Brick In the Wall (Pink Floyd) jam
 unfinished; ended with a drum solo by Kris while the rest of the band left the stage
 with Regulate (Warren G) tease
Subject: 5 STAR BAND 5 STAR SOUND
Subject: Sweet music to my ears
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